The Mental Game


The other day someone asked my husband what it is that I think about during my long workouts and races.  He was also asked what it is that pushes people to step outside their comfort zone, and to keep going when the going gets tough.  Basically his friend was curious about the inner thoughts of all of us masochistic triathletes, marathon runners, and/or endurance junkies :)  

When my husband asked me about it at first all I said I was more than happy to talk to him about what works for me but if he is looking for what will work for him he's just gotta get himself out of the comfort zone and find out, as it is totally different for everyone.  Then, in natural fashion, we kept talking about it and I kept thinking about it and realized you know there are probably plenty of people who are fishing around for what will work for them and just need some guidance.

Becoming comfortable with uncomfortable and constantly being outside of that comfort zone we all like to live takes courage and a want.  One thing I always say to people when they tell me they could never do what I do is, "yes you can, you just have to want it".   It's that want, that desire, that dream, and ultimately that goal that gives you the first step to breaching that comfort zone and becoming comfortable with uncomfortable.


Let's start with what I think about during my long workouts (I think differently in workouts vs. races to an extent).

This depends on what type of discipline I am doing at that moment.  For me each one is different and I think that comes from which ones come more natural to me.

Swimming During a swim I have to really focus on what I am doing.  I have to be very very present in each aspect of the swim.  During a swim I have to stay extremely present with what I am doing.  There are times I will find myself thinking about work, programs for my athletes, or life but it during these times that I then find my form slipping and my speed going (what little bit I have) out the window.

Staying present means that on each stroke I am thinking about every aspect of the stroke from the catch to my hip rotation to remembering to finish strong through the whole stroke.  This doesn't leave much time for anything else beside reminding myself that I love swimming.  It is easy to let negative thoughts get into the things you struggle with the most and staying present is the best way for me to not let those thoughts sneak in, as there is no time for them.

As you can see this is why swimming is very exhausting for me.  Not only does it require me to be extremely physically present but I have to be one point mentally.  It's like golf, always thinking about all the little pieces that you have to do that do not come naturally.


I have a lot more freedom in my thoughts on the bike because I don't struggle as much on it as I do in swimming.  Biking is where most of my thinking comes into play, and I can let my mind wander.  This is where I think about work, projects I'm working on, ideas I have, Where Your Feet Take You, coaching, and just life in general.  I always listen to music while I ride and sometimes I just get lost in the music.  Riding is a time for me to really escape and let my mind wander, some of my best ideas and most creative thoughts have come during my rides.

Now this is not to say that I do not stay very present in my rides as well.  You'll here me say that I try to stay present in what I am doing a lot.   Staying present means I am focusing not only on what I am doing but how I am pushing myself towards that goal.  Staying present sometimes means picturing myself at the finish line or seeing that PR come across my watch.


As you all know running is my first love, it's where I started, and its my strongest discipline.  With knowing that you may think that this would be were I can let my mind wander and just let my body do the work compared to biking but running is different for me.  Running is the thing that has "saved" me when things are going wrong, running was what I turned to when I thought anger was going to consume me, it was what helped bring me out of an eating disorder, what I did to stop the tears from encompassing me, kept me positive, and always lets me untangle the webs of the day.  Running is a little more spiritual for me.  My mind doesn't wander as much, I just listen to my music and feel the road beneath my feet.  That is about it when it comes to running.

All of that is great but how does that help you to push through the mental blocks, tough moments, or help get yourself to finally step outside that comfort zone to push yourself a little bit further.  It may or may not, keep reading I'm getting to it, but I did want to share a little bit about what goes through my brain with each and how each discipline is different mentally for me.

What is it that gets you out of bed each day to spend hours of your day pushing your body to the limit? What is it that during a training run pushes you to finish that last interval? What is it that keeps you putting on foot in front of the other in a race when all hell is breaking loose?

It is different for everyone, and honestly I don't believe you can find it until you go out there and seek it.  For me it comes down to a couple one major thing, the want.  I want it more than anyone.  I want it so bad sometimes it is all I think about.  I want to be the best.  I want to be the fastest. I want to be the strongest.  And through all that I want I want to inspire others to take that leap of faith, for if they see that I never give up maybe they won't give up either.  It's all very selfish, yes, but its that want that keeps me going. There are many other factors rooted within that want that bolster it's strength and that I also turn to when the going gets tough.

To better demonstrate what this looks like for me I am going to give you a couple of examples in which I have utilized this power.


That first day getting back on the bike after being released to ride again.  I was terrified to go back on the road but I knew that if I was going to do Ironman Arizona then I had to figure it out somehow.  So I just pictured that end game, that want, I pictured crossing the finish line at Ironman Arizona. I spent the entire ride telling myself,  you are Kayla Bowker you are stronger than that lady who hit you, you don't let things stop you, you are strong, you are tough, and you will be an Ironman.

One thing you will notice throughout these examples I talk to myself a lot and through that I have found that reminding myself of who I am, and how far I have come helps me a lot. I wasn't always strong, I didn't always believe in myself - in fact quite the opposite.  But over the years I have come to find faith in me and to believe in the strength that is inside me.  It is my best weapon, I'm my own best weapon and sometimes I just have to remind myself of that.

Recovering from Surgery When I first was diagnosed by a doctor as needing surgery I was told I wouldn't race in 2016, that was ridiculous to me so I got a second opinion.  Each time I went to physical therapy, each time I almost passed out from the pain, each exercise I forced myself to do I just pictured the end game, that I was going to be an Ironman that year, nothing was going to stop me.  That want was so deep within me that there was no way I was going to let anything stop me from doing it.  You have to find that want that doesn't let you quit.

Ironman 70.3 World Championships This race was a mess.  I had one of the worst swims of my life.  I lost my aero bottle at mile two of the bike. I got a stupid drafting penalty.  It was one of those races where I probably could have called it quits many times or let myself get so bogged down by the shit that was happening that I mentally exploded.  This was a break through race mentally for me.  I learned in this race that you can come back from whatever crap is happening if you don't let it consume you.  Let it go.  So it happened, but does that mean that the rest of the day can't be amazing? Not at all.

For me, I decided to take it one step at a time.  So I had a shitty swim, but this bike course was made for me, I was Kayla Bowker and I was an awesome climber. I just put that mantra on repeat, once again continually reminding myself of the strength that is in me.

Ironman Kona For those of you that follow my story you know that Kona was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and it was the closest I have ever come to giving up.  I had spent the entire day telling myself that I could do it, that I was ready, I was strong, I was Kayla Bowker and no one was going to stop me.  Yet outside forces continued to pound that resilience into oblivion.  Here is my last secret of what it is that keeps me going, Brandon.

Sometimes there comes a point when no matter how mentally tough you are, how much you believe, or how much you want it you need that outside person to slip into those dark parts of your brain and remind you of it.  Kona was that time for me and Brandon was the one who did it.  He reminded me that not a single person was disappointed in me, he reminded me that I had worked really hard for this, that I was so close to that goal (that want), he reminded me that everyone was proud of me, and most of all he reminded me that I was Kayla Bowker for god sakes and I was stronger than anyone.

Your support team can be one of the biggest strengths in helping you get passed whatever it is that is blocking you.  That support team can be a multitude of things, family, friends, colleagues, people you've met on social media, or the friendly guy suffering next to you on the race course.  Really you never know when that person is going to come along and inspire you to remember your want.

Here are my top 6 ways I keep myself going whether in a long workout or a race:

  1. Remind myself of the strength inside me, of who I am.
  2. Talk to myself.
  3. Believe whole hardheartedly in your goal and never let go of that want.
  4. Visualize the end game.
  5. Take it one step at a time.
  6. Have a strong support team.

After thinking more and more on this subject and believing so much that it is different for everyone I wanted to hear what others do to keep themselves motivated or get themselves out of a mess.  So I reached out on social media and here are some of the answers I got:

  • Think about whatever I can. I like to be creative about my thoughts and find ways to make it fun. It always has to be fun.  I also never let myself take for granted that I am healthy and capable.
  • Think about the finish line, and where I am now verses where I started.
  • Math. I am always calculating something in one way or another.  However many intervals or time is left, what that looks like in distance, how fast I need to go to get myself through that distance.  How long it will take, and how much time is left.
  • Knowing that I have spent way more time on worse things such at work or an awful conference call, and after that I can get through anything.
  • Thinking about the possibility that this could be taken from me at any time so I need to make the best of it.  Makes the short term pain less painful.
  • Jamming out.  I usually get pretty into it, matching my spin cadence to the beat.  It distracts me and makes it really fun.  I try not to think too much but sometimes I'll catch up with life things while I'm on the bike (trainer).  During extra long rides I think about what's next to eat or drink and focus on monitoring my nutrition.
  • I give myself a little pep talk and tell myself to suck it up butter cup.  I'll listen to a super motivating song.  During some of my hardest moments during a particular race I thought about my kids and how I wanted to show them that I wasn't a quitter.
  • Audiobooks
  • The yellow or red blocks on training peaks
  • Life, goals, relationships, day dream, and problem solve.  I talk positive to myself when it gets really tough and when I am feeling extremely like a wuss I think somebody out there is working harder than me and that's not acceptable.

As you can see everyone has something a little bit different that they think about.  It takes jumping in and going for it to figure it out.  It also takes failing a couple of times to learn what does work and what doesn't.  Learning to stay present, be mentally tough, and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is not easy but it is very rewarding.

Thank you to everyone who provided answers to my question on social media.  I hope that this provided some insight to you on the mental side of the game.  If you have any questions, would like some guidance, help managing those wants/goal, want to talk it through, or just need someone to help get you to take those baby steps please email me I would love to help.

CHEERS  and stay present!! Kayla